And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” …
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” speech
After World War II, a confident social establishment imagined it could lead the nation into the American Century. This establishment had an intellectual counterpart within the dominant social sciences, which envisioned the nation’s corporate, media, and political set allying with intellectuals to create a consensuson the central values of society. This value consensus would in turn be used by this interlocked elite to run the central institutions of society. This consensus did not mean that all of the problems had been solved, nor that all Americans were equally included. But the consensus created a basis for “the powers that be” to work together for the good of society as a whole.
Belief in this consensus was then shattered by a series of social movements that aimed to overcome gross injustices in American society. The long-simmering labor movement renewed its attack on class injustices. The growing civil rights movement attacked racial injustices. A new wave of the women’s movement attacked gender injustices. Opposition to the Vietnam War would become part of a wider attack on the injustices of colonialism. The successes of these social movements would spur new movements to attack injustices against people with disabilities and against sexual minorities.
Just as the confident establishment of the American Century inspired a social science of consensus, the success of these oppositional social movements inspired a social science of conflict. Marxist theories, feminist theories, race theories, postcolonial theories, queer theories — all pointed toward a comprehensive ideology of critical theory. Every elite, every establishment, every grand narrative of history was presumed to be unjustly hoarding wealth, status, opportunity, power. Postmodernist theories went a step further, raising a presumption that any grand narrative of justice was itself a cloak for unequal power.
To the Baby Boomers who came of age with these successive waves of conflict theories, the consensus theory of their elders seemed naïve. As the Boomers came to power, displacing their elders, consensus theory seemed dead. Today, when the Boomers are the elders, the elite is more polarized than at any time in living memory. The ideology of endless conflict has become institutionalized. The various conflict ideologies force all social issues into a left-right straitjacket, whether they really fit or not. The center of a left-right spectrum is forced to be a compromise between two visions of order. In practice, the center of a left-right spectrum is reduced to offering a processof moderating change, more than it can provide an alternative, substantive vision of order.
There are internal problems with the left-right spectrum. First, the European original presumed a monarchist right, which has become irrelevant to European political thought and has never been relevant to American political thought. Second, the American left-right spectrum, framed by the Constitution, is driven by a much narrower question concerning two ways of achieving liberty. The big world of politics is larger than that, even if we think American liberal democracy is ultimately the best of all possible kinds of politics. Third, the current division of liberals and conservatives is of very recent origin—the 1950s, really, though it is typical of conservatism to claim older roots.
And yet…society needs a larger structure of order or its conflicts will tear society apart. The leaders of the various power structures in society need to find some way of working together in order for the central institutions to function. A society can only try to develop a concept of a just order if it shares some sense of the central values of that society. We yearn for a good society where we can achieve decent lives in peace.
The time is ripe to consider a new consensus theory, on the far side of the necessary social movements that criticized the old consensus. It is time for a vision of centrism with a heroic mission to include all and lead on to a flourishing future.
© Beau Weston, 2020. Published with permission from Beau Weston by the Niskanen Center.